John's Journal
A Day Of Leadership Training In The Granite Ridge Conference 9/30/2015
ST. CLOUD – Wednesday was in important day in the Granite Ridge Conference. An event was held at St. Cloud Cathedral High School: the fifth annual leadership conference for students from all eight member schools.

Administrators at each school selected 20 students to attend, meaning 160 gathered for three and half hours of learning and togetherness (and lunch). The schools in the Granite Ridge are Albany, Becker, Foley, Little Falls, Milaca, Mora, Cathedral and Zimmerman.

The topics were wide-ranging: concussions, social media, leadership, college recruiting, relationships with officials and more. I gave a presentation on social media, with the message that social media is a fantastic tool but it must be used wisely.(During a short break, all 160 students posed for photos with the John's Journal Toyota Camry.)

Cathedral activities director Emmett Keenan told the students that they need to realize how much they have in common. Yes, they compete against each other in athletics, but they are all on similar paths.

“You need to respect what the other person is doing. You need to respect where the other person is coming from,” Keenan said. “When you go to practice today, everybody on the other team is going to practice today. When you go to the game on Friday night or Tuesday night or in December, everybody that you compete against will have worked to get to that same point where you are.

“And believe me, when you respect that you’ll be better, you’ll focus more on what you’re doing and everybody will have a much better time at every one of our events.”

He also told the students that their paths are likely to cross in later years.

“You may end up working for the same company. You may end up teaching in the same school. You may end up in the same job at different schools and work with each other. That is the beauty of athletics and athletic competition.”

Kevin Schlagel, former men’s basketball coach at St. Cloud State, gave an outstanding presentation on what it means to be part of a team, to compete every day and to be disciplined. He first congratulated the students on being selected to attend the conference.

“Obviously somebody saw something in you at your schools that brought you here,” he said.

He used quotes from Alabama football coach Nick Saban, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and others to make some important points.

“Being part of a team is being part of something bigger than yourself,” Schlagel said.

In discussing competition, he told the students to compete every day in every way, reminding them that everyone in every walk of life competes against time, norms, opponents and themselves.

“You’re part of something bigger than yourself,” he said.

Paul Conrad, assistant principal at Albany and a veteran official in several sports, helped the students understand who officials are and why they officiate.

His challenge to athletes was simple: “Make your team and your school better, every day.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 100
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 2,870
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Tiny Runner Makes Giant Impact At The Griak 9/27/2015
A field of 419 girls from 49 teams in 10 different states competed in the Gary Wilson Gold high school girls cross-country race Saturday at the Roy Griak Invitational.

The race was one of four for high school runners and six for collegiate athletes during the 30th annual Griak, one of the nation’s top cross-country events. As that massive army of 419 wound its way around the University of Minnesota Les Bolstad Golf Course, a new name began to emerge on the running scene.

Her name is Grace Ping and she is a seventh-grader competing for Cotter High School in Winona. She turned 12 years old in July. And she astounded the field as well as the high school cross-country world with a dominating victory Saturday.

The astounding facts extend beyond her age. The race was only Grace’s second as a high school athlete and the first time she ran a 5K as part of the Cotter team. And the 5-foot, 80-pound dynamo was a tiny whirlwind of churning legs and arms.

Her winning time was 18 minutes, 12.5 seconds, four seconds ahead of runner-up Judy Pendergast, a senior from Naperville North (Illinois). Placing third was Bismark (N.D.) freshman Mattie Shirley-Fairbairn and fourth was Forest Lake senior Emma Benner.

“It was really fun,” is how Grace summed up the experience. The plan was for her to go with a 5:40 first mile, but she was too fast to hold back.

“Our coach (Mike Costello) who set up our training plan for our team, and my dad, they were like, ‘She could go out in a 5:40 mile.’ And I ended up going out faster than that. I always end up going fast at the start in races.”

She led almost the entire distance, too. Grace had run a race in Stewartville this fall, but it was shortened from a 5K to two miles because of excessive heat (another meet was canceled due to lightning). She is no stranger to running, however, having competed in U.S.A. Track and Field age-group events and other non-school competitions for years.

“She’s been doing fun runs since she was 2,” said her dad, Ryan. “She did her first 5K when she was 8. She did really, really well and fell totally in love with running.”

At the USATF Minnesota Junior Olympic Championships in June, Grace set a national age-group record in the 3,000 meters for 11- and 12-year-olds, winning in 9:56.45.

“She’s been looking forward to this for some time” Ryan said. “She said she wasn’t too nervous because she’s been going to Junior Olympics for cross-country and she’s been in big meets. But my wife and I were kind of nervous because she’d only had one meet in the high school season this year and it was a two-mile.”

Grace was excited to reach seventh grade and finally be eligible to compete on the high school level. She came into Saturday’s race ranked sixth among Class 1A girls cross-country runners, and her aspirations are big.

“That was my goal, to win,” she said of Saturday’s race. Asked about winning a Class 1A state championship this season, she smiled and said, “My goal is to win that, too. I’ll just keep training my best and working my hardest.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 98
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 2,674
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Fifty Years Later, South St. Paul Honors The Heroes of ‘659/25/2015
High school athletes are always busy with school, sports and their families and friends. It’s never a bad thing, however, to give them something else to consider: Tradition.

Tradition runs deep and thick at South St. Paul High School, which will send its 102nd graduating class out into the world next spring. Homecoming week was capped Friday night when the Packers improved to 5-1 this season by defeating Tartan 46-30. But for the high school football players, there was much more to Homecoming than one football game.

The Packers spent time with some very special guests who stood in their cleats 50 years ago. The school held an induction ceremony for its athletic Hall of Fame before Friday’s game, and the stars of the show were 32 members of the 1965 football team, which went 9-0 and was ranked second in the state; there were no postseason playoffs back then.

The individual inductees were Frank Arend ’91, Richard Lick ’54, the late Glenn Novack ’70 and Gregg Veldman ’78. Memories were shared and thank yous were delivered by each inductee (in the case of Novack, his family accepted the honor). It was a moving ceremony in the school commons, capped by 32 men wearing white T-shirts that bore their jersey numbers from back in the day. At halftime of the football game, the inductees were introduced to a standing ovation.

Smiles, handshakes, hugs, more smiles and countless photos.

The star of that 1965 team was Jim Carter, who went on play linebacker for the University of Minnesota Gophers as well as the Green Bay Packers. He replaced retired Packers legend Ray Nitschke at linebacker, played in Green Bay from 1970 to 1978 and was named to the Pro Bowl in 1974.

When I asked Carter about his high school memories, he smiled and said, “The best kind.”

Packers football coach/athletic director Chad Sexauer worked with Carter in planning the weekend. The 1965 and 2015 football teams had dinner together at the school Thursday evening and the old guys were in the locker room with the young guys before Friday’s game.

“We talk a lot about one of the great strengths of South St. Paul, which is its tradition,” Sexauer said. “We hang onto that pretty closely. So to be able to break bread with those guys last night, and for them to share stories about their experiences in South St. Paul, and the stockyards and a blue-collar town is really special.

“We’re still kind of blue-collar kids. We’re a small city five miles from the capitol, we still have strong traditions, from eastern European immigrants to now it’s Hispanic kids and African-American kids. It’s people who are working and we don’t lose that identity.”

During the Hall of Fame ceremony, 1965 assistant coach Dennis Tetu talked about the team and the season that they all remember.

“Although Jim Carter has got tremendous stats, it took all these guys here to open those holes, to play defense,” he said. “You have to give this whole team credit for it.

“If you watched all those games in that 1965 year, you would see a great tackle by somebody here, a fumble recovery here, an interception here. Everybody pitched in. It was just one great group of players. “

The ’65 team ran the single-wing offense, with Carter and Paul Kenady carrying the ball. Passes weren’t necessary or counted on by the boys from South St. Paul.

“I was about 210 and our offensive line was about 160, 170 but we had a bunch of tough kids,” Carter said. “We just ran power football. We didn’t throw much. We had two double teams on both sides of the holes. We ran for a lot of yards, scored a lot of points and we had a lot of fun.”

Carter, who lives nearby, invited his teammates to his home Friday afternoon. Stories were swapped, tales were embellished, bonds were renewed.

“I told the guys that it was kind of payback for me to throw a party for them and have them here,” Carter said. “I’ve had so many great opportunities in my life. I was a captain at the University of Minnesota, I was a captain in Green Bay. Things like that could not have happened had I not played on this team in South St. Paul. It really changed my life. I got lucky, man.”

--To see a photo gallery from South St. Paul, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 70
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 2,648
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
The Hasz Sisters: One Final Run At Cross-Country History 9/23/2015
ALEXANDRIA – Wednesday was the first day of autumn, which seemed like a fitting day to sit down with the girls of fall, otherwise known as the Hasz sisters, Megan and Bethany. The breaking news from our interview, conducted late in the school day in the commons area of Alexandria High School, was that the identical twin seniors will become collegiate cross-country and track athletes at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 2016.

Until talking with them, I was unaware that they had made a college choice. They had done so in low-key fashion, informing the Gophers coaches that they would indeed accept Minnesota’s offer and telling coaches from other schools – most notably North Carolina and Michigan State – that they were headed to Dinkytown.

There was no news conference, no Tweets (neither of the girls has a Twitter account), not even a story in the local paper, the Alexandria Echo Press. The Hasz sisters are low on drama and low on flashiness. They just run, and run, and run, and run … until they win. (And they also don’t mind poking each other with a joke stick. More on that in a moment.)

They have made a significant mark at the MSHSL cross-country state championships. As eighth-graders in 2011 the sisters finished fourth (Megan) and fifth (Bethany). When they were ninth-graders in 2012, Bethany finished third at state and Megan was sixth. The last two years have been extra special.

In 2013 Bethany won the Class 2A state championship in dominating fashion; Megan was the runner-up, finishing 20 seconds behind her twin. At last year’s state meet the roles were reversed: Megan finished first with a four-second lead over Bethany.

Their farewell to high school cross-country will come at this year’s state meet, Nov. 7 at St. Olaf College in Northfield. Their prep careers will end next spring at the state track meet, where they also have made a lasting impression.

Bethany won the Class 2A 1,600- and 3,200-meter races last spring at state (Megan was injured and did not compete). In 2014 the twins placed second (Megan) and third (Bethany) in the 1,600 and third (Bethany) and fourth (Megan) in the 3,200.

Megan was slowed by a stress fracture in her left tibia last spring and the injury has resurfaced this fall. She raced in the season’s first meet, but pain in the leg came back.

“Right now my goal is to get back into running,” she said, a little frustrated with cross-training and elliptical workouts. “I think I might try running this weekend.”

The twins turned 18 on Sept. 9. Megan is the oldest, having been born 28 minutes before Bethany. Bethany stands 5 feet, 6 inches tall and Megan is 5-4 ½.

They both play the cello in a school orchestra. With a bit of a chuckle they admitted that they don’t practice much and aren’t in any danger of becoming the top cello players in Alexandria.

“Orchestra is pretty fun,” Megan said. Bethany added, “We are very close to the bottom (of the cello players in their orchestra). But we’re close to the bottom of the TOP orchestra.”

When they aren’t running or studying they like to bake or read. “Any kind of dessert, anything chocolate,” Megan said about baking. As for reading, their likes include Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and the Divergent series.

They said the choice to attend the University of Minnesota – 136 miles down Interstate 94 from Alexandria – was what Bethany called “a pretty easy decision.”

Megan said, “We stressed about it quite a bit at first. Then we kind of decided to make it easy for ourselves.”

Roommates since birth, they haven’t decided if they will room together in college. “She’s not that interesting,” Bethany said, looking at her sister with a smile. Megan replied, “Thank you, I appreciate that. I’m not that interesting. That’s true.”

There was also this humorous exchange about the distance from the high school to their home, a route they sometimes run … Bethany: “It’s a couple miles.” Megan: “It’s like four miles.” Bethany: “It’s probably about four, but it’s still not that far.”

And this discussion of trying to be more comfortable during interviews … Bethany: “I like to think I’ve gotten less awkward.” Megan: “You haven’t.”

They began receiving college recruiting letters when they were in ninth grade. They sometimes tried to make their parents nervous by suggesting they would attend different colleges.

“We definitely joked about it,” Megan said. “We joked about it with our parents, just to make it difficult for them. But they knew we wouldn’t go to two different places.”

Megan’s injury has caused some squirming, because it’s hard for any athlete to sit on the sideline while others are training.

“It’s so frustrating,” she said. “I want to be running and training. One of my biggest competitors (Bethany) is training really hard and I can’t.”

“It’s a friendly competition,” Megan added, to which Bethany said, “We’re very competitive. Megan is probably more competitive than I am.” Megan said, “We’re always happy for the other one if they do better.”

That’s indeed what cross-country fans expect to see at the 2015 state meet. Two girls from Alexandria, identical twin sisters, breaking away from the pack and racing to the finish line as the throng cheers them on.

The order in which they’ll finish? It doesn’t really matter.

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 68
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 2,608
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Physical Limitations Can’t Limit This Tennis Player 9/18/2015
Allegra TeBrake, a junior at Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa High School, has played tennis since she was in seventh grade. She’s a member of the Jaguars varsity team and she looks just like every other player on the court … until you notice how she serves.

“There was one girl I played last week who was amazed,” Allegra said Thursday after competing in a doubles match with sophomore teammate Mallory Bents at New York Mills. “She said, ‘I’m amazed that you can do that so fast.’ ”

It does happen quickly, and it’s a testament to Allegra’s abilities as an athlete and as an inspiration to others. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was five years old, and her left hand doesn’t operate at full capacity. She swings her tennis racket righthanded; when serving she tucks the racket under her left arm, tosses the ball up with her right hand and then quickly grabs the racket and strikes the ball.

It’s reminiscent of former major league baseball pitcher Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand yet spent 10 years in the big leagues.

“Without the help of her left hand, she hits backhands, hustles to every ball and never gives up,” said Jaguars coach Katie Kienitz. “It is something truly remarkable.”

Allegra -- who lives with her sister Chandler, 13, and parents Mark and Denise on a farm outside of Glenwood – is a veteran of medical treatments. Her brain tumor was discovered after she had trouble using her left hand and began having bad headaches. She was diagnosed with juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma, a rare childhood cancer.

She underwent surgery 10 years ago, in which 90 percent of the tumor was removed. In 2008 she underwent an 18-month regimen of chemotherapy. The treatments meant she lost her hair and experienced weight loss, but she also was able to spend time at a Wisconsin camp for kids with cancer, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation made it possible for Allegra and her family to visit a dude ranch in Montana.

The treatment stopped the remnants of the tumor from growing and chemotherapy was halted for a while. Last December she began taking oral chemo treatments in order to deal with fluid pockets near the brain tumor that were growing and began affecting her left hand. (Allegra, right, is pictured with doubles partner Mallory Bents and coach Katie Kienitz.)

“They took me off (chemo) at the end of August for a few weeks so I could enjoy the state fair and begin school without any side effects or anything,” Allegra said.

“They’re going to be putting me back on a higher dose because they don’t think it’s working. If not, they’re going to take me off at the end of December of this year. There’s a laser surgery they’re putting in at the Minneapolis Children’s Hospital, and I’m one of five kids, I think, waiting for this machine to be put in. Then they’ll go in and laser my fluid pockets, which will kill my brain tumor and it will go away.”

Allegra is an inspiration, and she has spoken about her experiences to groups ranging from her fellow 4H participants to gatherings of outdoor- and hunting-themed organizations.

“I’ve done a few speeches about myself,” she said. “I spoke in front of 300 National Wild Turkey Federation members last winter and shared my story.”

Through 4H, Allegra has shown llamas and goats, and she is a state ambassador for a 4H project called Minnesota State Shooting Sports and Wildlife. She is applying to become a national ambassador and will be doing training in that capacity either in California or in Minnesota early next summer.

On the tennis court, it didn’t take long for Allegra to figure out how to hit a serve.

“I kind of played around with how I served for a few weeks until I kind of got it down,” she said. “I just like to compete against the other people. And the bus rides and stuff are really cool with the girls. There’s a lot of team bonding that goes on between us because we’re all about the same age. We’ve become closer as a team.”

Kienitz, a second-grade teacher and first-year coach, called Allegra “an amazing person inside and out. … she has never had a complaint about anything. She has a different perspective on all that she does and she doesn't let her disability faze her. She has been a great source of positivity, courage, and leadership on my team. She is truly a remarkable person.”

*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 46
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 2,252
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn